As a child I remember my father covering the walls of our home office with genealogy documents that mapped out centuries of our family history. There was something about knowing exactly where we came from that was significant for him and he dedicated much time and energy tracing our family origins. From this, I came to believe at a very young age that your relatives are a important part of who you are and that the blood that runs through your veins defines you.
American photographer Taryn Simon’s latest project, A Living Man Declared Dead and Other Chapters, uses bloodlines to weave poignant and powerful narratives of family and suffering. Wielding photography to record people, documents and relics, Simon is part of a persuasive school of artists the forcefully fuse documentary photography and art.
On opening night of Simon’s solo exhibition at Tate Modern, the foyer was filled with celebrations and libations, however the sheer power of Simon’s work was evident in the drastic shift in ambience as one crossed the threshold into the gallery space – the bubbling atmosphere dissipated as the captive audience introverted, shuffling around silently in the heavy air.
Presented in a clinical manner, Simon’s systematic three-panel format provides a structure that counteracts the chaos and pathos of the stories told here. Eighteen chapters present genetics as inescapable and individuals defined by a single blood relative. Children exist in the shadows of their parents, grandparents or great-grandparents, or what they did. There is the descendants of the man forced to become the body double of Saddam Hussein’s son, Uday, a set of triplets affected by Thalidomide, Tanzanian albinos poached for their skin, and the bloodlines of Leila Khaled, the first woman to hijack and airplane and Hans Frank, Hitler’s legal advisor.
The portrait panel records their faces, the annotation panel details who they are, and the footnote panel contains the photographic evidence that supports the story. Blank spaces are left for those who could not be photographed for one reason or another, or chose not to participate, as detailed in the notes.
Chapter XVII is the only one in the project that does not actually trace a bloodline, but instead documents the absence of a bloodline. At a Ukrainian orphanage, Simon photographed every child – individuals whose severance from a bloodline defines who they are, as they are absorbed into this alternative family. More often than not, this will largely determine who they become – as is noted, these children, when forced to leave at the age of sixteen, are highly susceptible to drug and sex trafficking, crime and suicide.
In A Living Man Declared Dead and Other Chapters, Simon’s deterministic assertion that where we come from defines who we are presents a particularly harrowing view of the world. But our bloodline does not have to be inescapable, as some of the absentee portraits who declined participation in the project have shown. The blank spaces here stand strongly for choice – the ability to remove yourself from a bloodline and not let it determine who you are – and it is these individuals, and their silence, that I find most intriguing. I can’t help but wonder who they are.